Hetero bed death
March 19, 2010 4:38 PM   Subscribe

Are you a member of (or do you know of) a couple who actually bounced back from long-term relationship "bed death," where one partner's sex drive went through the floor? How did you (or they) do it?

I'm a 31-year-old straight man who has been in four serious long-term relationships. In each one, my partner's sex drive started off strong and then dwindled away at about the one-year mark, creating frustration, resentment (on both sides), and ultimately breakups.

Normally I would see the common element -- me -- and figure I was the problem, but the experiences of my friends of both sexes, and even my partners' version of their own histories indicate that this happens to a lot of couples. I'm tempted to call it the norm, and the stats on sex in marriage seem to back this up.

I'm living with a truly wonderful woman right now with whom everything works -- except that. We started off with constant, clothes-ripping sex, but over time she dropped off to about 99 per cent uninterested while I did not. She's willing to do it for me sometimes, but it's obvious she's not aroused, and if I didn't initiate sex we'd probably do it once a month or less.

I've been through this enough times to recognize the thin edge of the wedge when I feel it. I get frustrated and feel unloved and unappreciated, she picks up on it and feels pressured to have sex which puts her even less in the mood, and we end up having the same old argument of "I'm not a sexual appliance" vs. "I promised to stick to home cooking and you padlocked the fridge." My sexual confidence is shot and I'm as unfulfilled as I've ever been.

I'm trying to avoid all the bad behaviors that are so tempting in this situation -- begging, bitching, getting visibly angry and frustrated when I'm rejected, etc. -- but all this does is avoid creating fights. It doesn't solve the problem. And I know that this isn't really her fault. She isn't consciously setting her sex drive to a low level any more than I'm setting mine to high.

So I need to know: has ANYONE out there saved a relationship in these straits by bringing the sexuality back into it? HOW?

(To pre-empt some likely answers since I can't respond anonymously: I realize that one option is opening up the relationship and getting it elsewhere, but I'm asking about whether anyone has saved the sexual relationship they already had with their partner. We've tried therapy, and, predictably, it didn't work -- how can a person talk herself into feeling more sexual? Finally, I weigh the same as I did when we met.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (40 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

Have all or any of these women gone on the pill after being with you for awhile? That can lower libido dramatically, and could be a common denominator to consider.

If she is on the pill, maybe try another form of birth control.
posted by k8lin at 4:43 PM on March 19, 2010 [9 favorites]

Have you ruled out all the usual things on her end? Stress, being overscheduled, doing too much of the housework for both of you? Medical things like (as k8lin said) being on hormonal birth control, having a low testosterone level, and so on? Relationship issues like a festering resentment? Or maybe now that it's a year in, there is less romance, foreplay, hugging, nonsexual compliments, less contact in general other than in bed, etc?

If you have ruled out all those usual things, have you tried not asking for/indicating that you want sex AT ALL for a period of time, like a month or so? Not being cold to her, still giving her hugs, telling her you love her, but with the expectation that it will NOT lead to sex? And if she moves things in the direction of sex, allowing her to take the lead 100%. Having her direct the pace of the action, the acts you guys do, the positions, etc. (Not in a cold listless dead fish way)

I'm also going to suggest something I think nobody else will: have you entertained the idea of trying to lower your own libido? There are lots of threads here about that topic.
posted by Ashley801 at 4:53 PM on March 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

P.S.: if this relationship ends up not working out my advice for the future is- in the beginning of a relationship, don't initiate sex as much as you normally would (however much that is). I think if you let the woman initiate it, you'll have a better idea of what her sex drive really is.
posted by Ashley801 at 5:00 PM on March 19, 2010 [5 favorites]

Last thought: in the beginning of your relationship, you guys probably weren't living together. So, you probably only saw each other once or twice a week. Maybe less. Your gf might have been really enthusiastic about sex every time she saw you, giving you the impression that she wanted to have sex every day. She might have even thought that herself. But really, it may have been that once or twice a week was perfect for her.

Moving in together, and having sex every day at first, or feeling pressured to have sex every day, even just touched sexually every day, may have overwhelmed her and killed her drive. When did you first notice the drop-off start? When did she first turn you down for sex? If the first slight bit of the dropoff happened around when you moved in together, I think this is a possible reason why.
posted by Ashley801 at 5:14 PM on March 19, 2010 [10 favorites]

Yes, it's possible to bounce back from this. Check out Why Your Wife Won't Have Sex With You. It's old and no longer updated, but it covers the issue well and has the added bonus of being clear that even though you may not have done anything to cause it, there are some things you can do to fix it. It might not necessarily work in your situation but it's got a lot of good discussion and advice and is definitely worth reading.
posted by stefanie at 5:14 PM on March 19, 2010

1. In the couples that I know of, if one partner's libido significantly dropped from its normal level, there was always an identifiable problem, either medical, psychological (depression or stress) or relationship. Does your gf know what her preferred frequency is or rather was in other relationships?

2. Is she not interested in starting or is she not getting aroused even with foreplay etc.? The first is much easier to change, the second suggests that she really needs to see a doctor to make sure everything is working properly.

3. I would recommend that you read one of the books by David Schnarch. I'm most familiar with Passionate Marriage, but his newer one, Resurrecting Sex: Solving Sexual Problems and Revolutionizing the Relationship might be better for your needs. His stuff assumes a certain level of emotional maturity but if you get the book you will quick find out if you can make his approach work for you.
posted by metahawk at 5:19 PM on March 19, 2010

Last last thought: I mentioned this briefly already but just want emphasize- you mention in the OP that there are behaviors you're careful not to do. I think one important one is not to be constantly touching her sexually when she's just around the house. I don't know that you do this, but I think a lot of guys try to be playful and get their gf in the mood by grabbing her butt while she's doing dishes, goosing her when she walks by, etc. For your gf, if you do this, it might be making things worse. If she's not horny when you do it, she might just feel like sex is something she's constantly defending herself from, and that might make the cycle worse.
posted by Ashley801 at 5:22 PM on March 19, 2010 [25 favorites]

I have a totally different take on this. What piqued my attention was this:

I get frustrated and feel unloved and unappreciated

That signals to me that your primary interest in the relationship is sex. When you get as much sex as you want, you're totally in love and feel loved in return. If you're not getting as much as you want, though, you aren't just sexually unfulfilled (which would be natural) but you feel unloved and unwanted as well.

I suspect that the drop-off in sexual desire on the part of your partner is related to that. Speaking for myself (and probably many other women), I certainly wouldn't feel very turned on by a guy who gave all indications of being in love with me -- even to the point of wanting to live together -- but then turns out to equate love with sex and not see much beyond that. I'm not saying that you don't love her. I'm just suggesting that her definition of what love truly is may be much more multidimensional than your definition.

Perhaps I'm being unfair in this assessment. If I am, I'm certain many people will voice their outrage. But maybe the problem isn't with her at all; it's with you and how you express and feel love.
posted by DrGail at 5:45 PM on March 19, 2010 [5 favorites]

I think you are not creating an environment in which she (and others in the past) feel like having sex. I'm guessing you are one of those people who analyze everything and take a great deal of energy to be with. If she simply pounced on you tonight would you try to make her tell you why she did in the hope that it could be repeated more often? That's probably why she won't do it - it's not worth the energy, frustration, etc that you would give her afterward, possibly even during.

I think some men just keep replacing their worn-out tired women when they run out. And some women can do the same to men. Some people just take a ton of energy and give none back. If you want lots of sex, you can try figure out why you wear people out, try find someone who never tires (very rare!) or just keep replacing people.

Some things to think about:
- Do you like her to focus her attention on you if you are around, do you show your displeasure in small ways if she doesn't?
- Do you do your share of the boring chores without expecting rewards or complaining?
- Does your happiness rely on your partners, or can you amuse yourself?
- Are you a team or rivals in your relationship?
- Do you make her feel stupid and nitpick on every thing she says in public?
- Do you keep pushing her to improve herself?

Summary: pressure off = sex on.
And in case you are wondering, she is probably still horny and takes cares of it when you're not around or in the bathroom or something.
posted by meepmeow at 6:13 PM on March 19, 2010 [9 favorites]

Some things I would consider:

Does the person with low sex drive have any of the following, all of which cause fatigue and consequently lowered libido:

* thyroid problems?

* sleep apnoea?

* depression?

* low iron levels (anaemia)?

* low levels of vitamin B12 (this can be quickly treated with an injection, followed by B12 tablets)?

* low levels of vitamin D (surprisingly common, especially in Winter, or for pale-skinned people who cover their skin to avoid sunburn)?

* untreated or poorly controlled diabetes?

* lack of sleep?

I would also strongly recommend reading Resurrecting sex: solving sexual problems and revolutionizing your relationship by David Schnarch and James Maddock, which talks about the way that both physical issues (ageing, blood pressure etc) and relationship issues (trust, communication) can impact on desire and sexual pleasure.

If there is a disparity in desire levels - i.e. she wants sex [X] times per week, and you want sex [X + N] times per week, could you make up the difference through watching or reading porn and/or erotica, and really lavishing attention on yourself - plenty of time, quality lube, sex toys, etc ?

Lastly, the sex and relationship advice columnist Dan Savage has written some great material on this.
posted by Oceanesque at 6:20 PM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

The only way you are going to have a chance of fixing this is if you both see it as a problem that can be resolved and that you both want to resolve. If she is not interested in addressing her low sex drive with her gyno and/or with a sex therapist or if she thinks there isn't a problem or the problem is yours, then I think that gives you the answers you seek about whether your situation is salvageable.

You mention arguing about it, but have you tried talk about the difference in your sex drives in a non-confrontational way with specifics about what you each want from your sex life? If your expectations are really far apart, does she see it as a problem as you do? Does she consider the precipitous drop in the frequency of your sexual interactions as normal for a relationship? Have you told her what you need from her without it making it about how she's failing you?

Relationships evolve and some of that early fire does burn out over time, but that doesn't mean that all relationships have to end up sexless. To avoid that though, both partners have to place intimacy as a priority and be willing to work to stoke the fire when it starts to fizzle out. Good luck to you both!
posted by cecic at 6:38 PM on March 19, 2010

Perhaps I'm being unfair in this assessment.

Yes, you really are.

There is a huge gap between "I feel unloved when my partner doesn't do X" and "X is the only thing that matters to me in a relationship". I think you're being extremely unfair to the OP.

I personally wouldn't feel loved by a partner who wouldn't comfort me on a bad day. That doesn't mean that I don't value other aspects of a relationship.
posted by ripley_ at 6:40 PM on March 19, 2010 [17 favorites]

don't discount what you said about you being the common denominator in all this.

while you could be consistently failing to do something(s) that each of these four women deemed necessary for your continued sexual mirth, the opposite seems much more likely.

that is to say, it would seem to be much more reasonable to conclude that you are in fact contributing--actively--to the each of these successive sourings of sexual relations.

as DrGail says, you need to look at no only what you do (i.e., @ your deliberate actions), but also at your motivations and your expectations (i.e., driving forces which produce their own sets of actions, generally unbeknownst to us). these will be much more telling, i think.

speaking as someone who has his own share of absurdly-high expectations-of both himself and of others--i can vouch as to the power of those expectations to seep out and to sour our personal relationships. the better you can understand these, the less harm they can do.

and, as you can see, this makes no promises to be an easy answer. if you are in fact more complicit in your own frustrations than you realize, then you will need to delve deep inside of yourself to seek out the roots of your feelings and fears.

good luck.
posted by DavidandConquer at 6:49 PM on March 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

I personally wouldn't feel loved by a partner who wouldn't comfort me on a bad day. That doesn't mean that I don't value other aspects of a relationship.

categorically disagree.

comforting/caring for someone when they need comforting it is an act of love

giving someone sympathy sex is something entirely different. not only does such an act enable what is potentially a very unhealthy equation between worthiness and sexuality, it also neglects--and threatens to chronically neglect--the sympathetic partner's own sexual needs.
posted by DavidandConquer at 6:58 PM on March 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also, one of the things that Snarch says is "People want sex when the sex is worth having, and when they can afford to want sex."

Obviously, this isn't always true - some people are genuinely asexual; some people are same-sex attracted but in an opposite-sex relationship, and some people have medical issues depressing their libido -

but what he means is that two main reasons that people don't want sex are

1. their partner is not paying enough attention to the type of sex that they would like. Long, slow kissing and lots of foreplay? Quick and fast in the shower? Maybe some light BDSM? What type of oral sex does your partner like? Or do they dislike oral sex (some women genuinely dislike oral sex, other women love oral sex but say they don't because of anxiety about how their partner will react to the smell and appearance of their vulva and vagina, an anxiety that is made worse by advertisements telling women they need to be ashamed and use caustic feminine deoderants.)

You need to talk with her about what types of sex she enjoys, and what types of sex she doesn't enjoy.

And you need to not get angry or defensive if she tells you that sexual behaviour X is not working for her, or that aspect X of your personal grooming or presentation turns her off.

For example, if she hates your beard - which is more important to you, the beard or her wanting to have sex with you? Ditto that favourite scruffy tshirt with holes or stains, that deoderant that gives her headaches...

(Obviously, these are all hypotheticals, you might well be the best dressed, most immaculately groomed fellow since George Clooney or Cary Grant. I'm just guessing here, based on things other women have told me turned them off their boyfriends.)

Would she find you more attractive with a new haircut, or a different style of clothes?

Have you put on a lot of weight, and if so, is that affecting her desire? Very hard to hear, I know, but better to know and to be able to decide if you want to try and lose the weight, than to find out when you break up that that was what the problem was.

2.their partner is not meeting their non-sexual needs, and they are feeling resentful about this. Nothing poisons a sexlife faster than resentment.

Does your partner feel that you are pulling your weight in the relationship?

Does your partner feel that you are bringing in your share of income? If she is bringing in more than 50% of the household income, is she okay with that? (Some people are genuinely 100% fine with it, other people feel resentful.)

Does your partner feel that you are doing your fair share of the housework?

Does she feel that you show her enough nonsexual affection? Holding hands, touching her on the shoulder, hugging and cuddling, telling her that you love her and think that she's beautiful, funny, smart, desirable, a brilliant astrophysicist, - whatever that it is that you love about her - and not just immediately before you want sex?

Do you do enough enjoyable shared activities together - cycling around the lake, playing chess, going to the opera, cooking gourmet meals, hunting through garage sales - whatever you both enjoy?

Do you each spend enough time apart with your friends? if you're spending too much time together, that could also be affecting her desire.

Does your partner have resentment over an unresolved issue - an affair, an argument that you just swept under the rug because you couldn't fix it?

Good luck! ^_^
posted by Oceanesque at 7:47 PM on March 19, 2010 [14 favorites]


But I believe my low libido was pretty specifically related to high-stress and lack of sleep caused by trying to take on too many commitments at once. It took a lot of self-awareness on my part and lots of communication and compromise from my partner to move beyond it to a place where I had the time, energy, and desire to have sex. We still go through periods where I get busy and forget to sort of re-stock that part of our relationship, but I think going through that dry-spell helped both of us put it in perspective.

So, in my specific case, the factors that led to rekindling a relationship included:
(1) I re-prioritized and stopped waking up at 6:30 to work out before my job (so I was getting more than 7 hours of sleep a night)
(2) My partner took on more responsibilities around the house so that I had some time to decompress after work
(3) For a long time, we stopped having sex right before bed, and found a time where I had more energy and libido. Even a few years on, we're still more successful on weekend afternoons than at night.
(4) My partner agreed to respect my boundaries, even if they were inconsistent and frustrating, and I agreed to try to be more aware of my own mental and physical state, and to prioritize physical intimacy when I could.
(5) It also took some recognition on my partner's part that he was only being physically affectionate towards me when he was horny, which felt really exploitative. It was a harsh truth, but necessary I think for both of us to recognize that he also wasn't giving me something that I needed.

But this isn't easy, and it takes a willingness from both parties to be introspective and honest and almost egoless.
posted by muddgirl at 7:50 PM on March 19, 2010 [9 favorites]

Sex should be part of a longterm relationship if you want it.

It sounds like a cliche, but if you live together women tend to find housework sexy. Do you do your fair share of the housework?
posted by KokuRyu at 9:01 PM on March 19, 2010

I get frustrated and feel unloved and unappreciated

This is pretty common for late twenties, early thirties men who don't get sex. It's okay to feel like this, although it will do absolutely nothing to help you get more sex.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:03 PM on March 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have trouble understanding why people find it so hard to accept that sexual desire waxes and wanes. That sometimes it isn't a 'thing' that needs fixing. Sometimes I want sex, sometimes I don't - that doesn't mean that every time I don't I'm depressed/hormonally unbalanced/vitamin deficient/stressed. It can just mean I don't feel like sex. Treating that like a BIG THING WE NEED TO FIX is pretty guaranteed to fuck up my sex drive because it stops being organic and becomes a beanplate that I "need to work on". Which is pretty easy to translate into feeling devalued as a partner.

If you add in that awful habit of only being affectionate when wanting to have sex, or acting like it's a right, or those obnoxious "make life sexier!" activities (groping, innuendo etc.) it becomes pretty hard to actually feel sexual without feeling pressured at the same time.

Our last non-child induced dry spell was a lot to do with stress and some emotional shit on my part (I'm a rape survivor and that has a HUGE effect on my sex life). It was exacerbated by some of that "ok we need to work on this!" instead of just accepting that I wasn't as keen and we could maybe do something else. It was also exacerbated by some maladaptive behaviours (he wouldn't come to bed with me because we'd be affectionate but not sexual and he'd get antsy and I'd feel pressured and it was crap). So we just reset things a bit with both of us fully backing away from sex as an issue for a while then slowly reintroducing it as something we do that's not a BIG DEAL THAT WE HAVE TO CONSTANTLY THINK ABOUT. It's just something we like to do as a couple. I am lucky that the other anachronism doesn't link affection and sex beyond 'uhhh this hug is getting kinda heated' (as opposed to 'hey, I'm hugging you so lets go!').

We both take sex off the table periodically - making your relationship and confidence and identity within the relationship hinge on how much sex you're having doesn't help anyone. Sex is a great part of relating in a relationship but it isn't the only way. Acting as though fixing the sex will make the relationship fine is short-sighted - we're in this relationship for the long term so just making it so I have more sex won't do anything for the relationship as a whole because libido isn't a constant. What will help is both of us creating an environment where sex is not the end goal of affection, where there are no 'quotas' to fill and where it is perfectly acceptable to say "I want to have sex" AND "I don't want to have sex" without fear of emotional repercussions beyond "you want a backrub instead?" or "uh, I'll just have some alone time then".

we end up having the same old argument of "I'm not a sexual appliance" vs. "I promised to stick to home cooking and you padlocked the fridge."

Please God tell me you don't say shit like this though. Nothing is more hurtful than the expectation of sex combined with "well, if I can't get it at home..." - it's an obscure threat and it's unfair to act as though it's something she's denying you out of some malicious desire to make you frustrated. And that undertone of being owed and being used is not going to help.

KokuRyu: It sounds like a cliche, but if you live together women tend to find housework sexy. Do you do your fair share of the housework?

Oh God no. Ugh. Housework is not even close to sexy. It means I have more time and energy which can relate to sex, but it isn't sexy in and of itself. Ugh. I don't know any women who find it sexy, only those who think it's part of an egalitarian relationship that is much more likely to work without gendered expectations of behaviour which includes a lot of sexual baggage. I know it's a common trope but it just means men 'performing' housework like that's a fix instead of fully participating in the household.

posted by geek anachronism at 9:20 PM on March 19, 2010 [18 favorites]

I'm tempted to call it the norm, and the stats on sex in marriage seem to back this up.

Sorry, but no. Yes, in long term relationships the sex is less frequent than in the first couple of year's honeymoon phase. But going from non-stop to nothing in the first year with multiple partners indicates either something with you or something with the type of person you choose to be with.
posted by saucysault at 9:26 PM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

The good news: this isn't the norm.

The bad news: this isn't the norm.

Good news, obviously, because relationships lasting longer than a year are not, in fact, normally doomed to vanishing sex.

Bad news because you're back to noting that, in the four relationships where this not-the-norm thing has happened -- precipitous falling-off of sex drive after only one year -- you're the common denominator. I'm not sure that what you've given us here is actually relevant to why this is happening, as you seem to have dismissed the idea that this could be in some way a consequence of something you're doing or not doing in your relationships. But your girlfriend might be willing to tell you. Have you talked to her about this -- not when you're trying to have sex, but at some other time? Asked her whether she has any idea why your sex life has fallen off a cliff?

Another possibility is that you're not picking well -- that, for example, you're picking women who put on a facade when dating, and are able to maintain it only so long.
posted by palliser at 9:28 PM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I personally wouldn't feel loved by a partner who wouldn't comfort me on a bad day. That doesn't mean that I don't value other aspects of a relationship.

categorically disagree.

comforting/caring for someone when they need comforting it is an act of love

giving someone sympathy sex is something entirely different. not only does such an act enable what is potentially a very unhealthy equation between worthiness and sexuality, it also neglects--and threatens to chronically neglect--the sympathetic partner's own sexual needs.

I don't think ripley_ is suggesting that the OP's partner comfort him with sex. I think he is just saying that it is perfectly natural that the OP feel unloved when his partner won't sleep with him. It does not mean that his primary reason for being in the relationship is sex, the way DrGail is saying it might.

OP, have you talked to your partner about these issues? Not talked to her after she's turned you down, or talked to her when you want to do it. I mean, really laid it out, when you're both feeling relatively normal and happy? Told her everything you've put into this post, with love, tact, compassion and sensitivity?

You will find the answer to your question in the conversations you have with her about this issue.
posted by sid at 9:57 PM on March 19, 2010

Sex chemistry "lasts two years".
Thus quoth the Beeb.
posted by fish tick at 10:05 PM on March 19, 2010

What palliser describes matches my experience. That is, not all (or even most, I think) relationships decline into sexlessness, and the biggest common factor in your situation is yourself.

I've been on all sides of this -- I've had a partner who lost interest in me; I've lost interest in a partner; and I'm currently in a long-term relationship that's become more sexalicious every year.

At the time, when my partner lost interest in me, I would have said that I was doing everything right and what more could I do? But looking back, I was being a royal turd and was making our sex life miserable. I couldn't see it at the time, but yeah, I was grabby and pushy in an off-putting kind of way -- I wanted sex as something I could extract from her.

What I wasn't doing then, but we are doing now, is making sex fun. It's not a duty, or a chore, or a debt that's owed. It should be fun and happy. And it's only that way if you are connected and communicating. Yes, yes, what could be a bigger cliche? But seriously, sex is just physical communication -- when you are out of synch, it's like talking with someone you don't share a language with. It doesn't work.
posted by Forktine at 10:09 PM on March 19, 2010 [4 favorites]

There is such a huge disconnect to me between DrGail and DavidandConquer's points of view on this subject to my own and I suspect it's that same disconnect that fuels OP's "hetero bed death."

I can only speak of my own experience, which is that sex and sex play are the most significant ways that I experience intimacy. A dearth of that kind of attention leads to:

* feelings of guilt -- for having to ask and not knowing what will be perceived as manipulation
* feelings of loss -- because I was a late bloomer and always thought something was wrong with me for not being attractive enough to lose my virginity
* feelings of loneliness -- because I am not experiencing intimacy
* feelings of confusion -- "what changed?"
* feelings of frustration -- because when I tried to discuss the situation or initiate intimacy, the discussion didn't go anywhere or I felt like my guilt was being played on

At the risk of sounding cornball, sex is the most sacred connection I've ever felt with another person.

Sex is a dealbreaker for a lot of us, and rightfully so. Love does wane for me when that piece of the puzzle is missing and there's no reason to feel guilty about that. If I was starting a relationship and sex was off the table, I'd quickly figure out that this person was going to be a really great friend. Because peeps you have chemistry but no sex with are friends, not lovers. That's not shallow. And that doesn't mean that you might leave a partner who was medically unable to have intercourse, because sex is so much more important than just penises and vaginas. The biggest part of sex is being recognized as a sexual being by your partner. On the flip side, intercourse without that just feels like masturbation.

I doubt OP wants "sympathy sex." That's reframing the discussion away from intimacy and towards sex-as-mechanical-release. (Maybe that's the philosophical disconnect here) If OP wanted release, OP would probably jerk off and be happy as a clam.

In my own experience, being treated as a sexual creature in any way, shape or form was enough to redevelop intimacy, piece by piece. Penetration not required. Nakedness not required. Maybe you can brainstorm ways to acknowledge each other's sexual selves in small ways that don't have to lead anywhere or that are unthreatening. You could also schedule times to explore each others' bodies where penetration is strictly prohibited or where there are other ground rules.

A lot of antidepressants suppress sex drive as well. I also have to say that just because OP has encountered this situation before, that doesn't note causation, just correlation. Try not to read too much into your past. Hopefully you and your partner can view this as a time for fun experimentation to find the right fit between you.
posted by Skwirl at 10:34 PM on March 19, 2010 [18 favorites]

Perhaps you are being unfairly judged, but I'll throw out that this post set off some 'Oh god, this guy is a whiny pain when it's been a busy week' alarm bells. Little is more libido-killing than a partner who appears to be keeping track, who cannot keep himself entertained while one has a bout of bronchitis or whatever (and cannot refrain from noting: you are better, now let's ball), and who views things in terms of 'padlocking the fridge' (seriously? If you are actually trotting out a line like that, no wonder people stop wanting to sleep with you). I get the feeling score-keeping starts pretty quickly and that you really do start to become annoying the second there's a shift from New Relationship Hot Monkey Sex to something closer to Normal Relationship Sex.

2nd Ashley801, meepmeow.
posted by kmennie at 10:36 PM on March 19, 2010 [4 favorites]

we end up having the same old argument of "I'm not a sexual appliance" vs. "I promised to stick to home cooking and you padlocked the fridge."

Start by picking a different metaphor for your side of that argument. Doing so won't help you win the argument, but it might give you pause to reflect on what your beloved has actually just said to you.
posted by flabdablet at 11:10 PM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't think it's necessarily you being a common denominator, especially if it happened to a partner in multiple relationships.

Seconding birth control (one time I went off of it and our sex life YAY IT CAME BACK YAY so there's one success story).

You say she's not aroused. That kinda worries me that it's a technique issue. Was she getting off on the regular when you two were first starting out? Was she faking it? (Surprisingly common and, as the positive reinforcement doesn't exist, the sex drive diminishes). In one relationship I had the first time around I ended up being really not into sex because I had been faking it (young! dumb!) and the fun of it wore off after a while. Then the second go-round he had a LOT more technique and WOW after we figured out how to give me a crazy good orgasm, I was ridiculously randy at all times. He got all his technique from a girlfriend who wouldn't have PIV intercourse! Another partner who never removes his pants (seriously never) has YAY good skills and is super fun to experiment with because there's not the weird societal expectation that it will be all about his pleasure. There are some technique videos that I can recommend if you PM me or ask in a follow-up.

So, with my above experiences in mind, I present to you a unified theory of getting back to getting it on. All of these things have made my sex drive go from about a 4 to an 8.

--Stop initiating. I've actually never had this happen but I've had the opposite kill my sex life. Maddening and irrational, I know, but being nagged about something makes it much less attractive. If you have to sleep on the couch, do it. Keep all the friendship and affection going. You're not punishing, make sure you don't give that impression.

--If she does initiate, focus on her pleasure. Avoid PIV intercourse. Hey, why not try keeping your pants on? It'll be a nice change and reinforce the idea that you're not just in it for your pleasure, but for the intimacy and connection that sex provides.

--Watch for what gets her turned on. Be very attuned to her responses. Do that stuff more. Act like you love doing it sooooo much and never want to stop, hopefully that will discourage her from faking it. Tell her how much you love seeing her happy. When you get tired or she seems tired, regardless of orgasm status, quit and go for the cuddle. If she gets frustrated and starts humping your leg or something, keep going.

--Geez, the birth control, I don't know if you can convince her to go off of that. If you're the kind of guy who hates condoms, well, get over it. Latex is cool. Bringing me to my next (somewhat esoteric) tip.

--If you're going to be doing a lot of manual stimulation, especially penetration, consider getting latex gloves and using lots of lube. Keeps things down there happy and puts less pressure on you to have perfect nails and soft hands. This really helped me get enthusiastic about fingering which is a great motivator for initiating sex--not having the erection be the determinant of whether or not I get penetrated makes it a lot more fun and much more obviously about me and my pleasure instead of just about his penis. It's annoying to be like "yay penetration!!" and then all of a sudden...nope, no more for you! Argh.

--My suggestions and my description of my personal experience wouldn't be complete without commenting on this:

"I realize that one option is opening up the relationship and getting it elsewhere, but I'm asking about whether anyone has saved the sexual relationship they already had with their partner."

Not mutually exclusive. Getting sex elsewhere can have a great effect on the sexual relationship you already have, you don't have to resent the fridge, you're not as keyed up, you don't feel unattractive, less pressure on her to fulfill all your needs, plus the fact that other people find you hot is...well...hot. Sex with her will be a fun bonus and you would hopefully not have to uproot your life or live in simmering resentment.

Opening Up has a lot of good info on this motivation for open relationships, I think it might be worth a read even if you decide not to go for it. If you ever want to talk about it, let me know.

A few tangential thoughts...

Sex is important and hey, who cares if that's your primary motivator for a romantic relationship. Different people have different priorities. Without sex, we probably wouldn't put up with all the various difficulties that come with living together, pairing off, etc. How many grown adults live, share a bed, share finances with, people they don't at least have a small chance of boinking? Sex is important. It is. It's a biological urge. It's nice. It's intimate. It makes some people feel loved and accepted. I also think that, although people get defensive about it, it's a little whack for her to be irritated that you want to keep doing what you've been doing. It's not like you want to suddenly make her play chess every day. You just want a continuation of the good sexual interaction that you already had. That is a perfectly reasonable desire.

I should mention John Gottman's books, especially 7 steps for a good marriage (or something like that) and a more scholarly, but very useful book called "Marriage Clinic". Talks about dealing with problems that will NEVER be solved. Yes, you can have irreconcilable differences and still have a happy relationship that lasts. The sad fact of it is that hetero bed death isn't the issue--it's the way you've started relating to each other due to the bed death that is the real relationship killer.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:40 AM on March 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

I also gotta say that I sympathize with the metaphor you're using...you essentially agreed to remain monogamous when your relationship was different. Now the terms of that particular contract have changed but you have no option to renegotiate--you're stuck with the nuclear option of breaking up or the very unpleasant option of significantly curbing your sexual expression.

Unfortunately, what turns some people off is somewhat ideosyncratic and it makes sense if that kind of reasoning did really turn her off to you. It's bound to make her defensive because it seems like you're accusing her of purposely trapping you. If that's how you feel, I respect that. It might be best not to bring it up. Instead, try positivity and just reacting positively to any small step she takes towards being sexual with you.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:46 AM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry for spamming up the thread, but one occurred to me. You said that in the beginning, you "started off with constant, clothes-ripping sex".

Now, I don't know if that is the kind of sex you like to always have. Are you into sex that's super vigorous and energy intensive? Lots of position changes? Things that require a lot of physical effort from her? Or maybe things that might cause her discomfort? (Knees pushed up to the chest, spanking, hair pulling?).

I don't know if this is the case for you. But if it is, a big part of her resistance may be feeling like if she agrees to sex, it's going to take a lot out of her. Think of how much people avoid/put off other things that take a lot of energy or discomfort, like exercising regularly.

Also... is there anything specific you do in bed that she resists at first but then eventually acquiesces to if you push? Or anything she will allow you to do for a certain length of time in bed but will eventually stop you? If I were you, the first thing I would try is cutting those things out completely, whatever they are.
posted by Ashley801 at 1:39 AM on March 20, 2010 [5 favorites]

I don't know if any of this applies to your relationship, so no offense intended, but just as food for thought I'll go over a few of the reasons I avoided sex at times in my last relationship:

My ex had this 'thing' about not being able to tolerate leg stubble, it really bugged him. Plus he was a two-shower-a-day kind of guy. If I wasn't freshly showered and shaved he wasn't happy.

Even as he approached the age of 40 he was one of those guys who could keep going after an orgasm and come again. If he didn't come at least twice during a session, he wasn't happy.

He was big into positions. If we didn't do it in at least three different ways every session, he wasn't happy.

There was no such thing as a quickie with him. If we didn't spend at least an hour doing it, he wasn't happy.

He was one of those guys who wanted sex every single day, twice if he could get it. Even if we just had sex yesterday, it didn't keep him from pouting a little that I didn't want to do it again today. God forbid I should have an hour or two a week to myself that I didn't use to ball him.

There might have been times I'd have been cool with putting out a little just for his benefit even if I wasn't in the mood, but if I didn't have an orgasm, he wasn't happy. (Even when I insisted I didn't want or need one at that time... not coming was like not applauding his performance.) If we had sex on a not-in-the-mood day, he'd have his face between my legs until the sun rose; or if I made him stop because it just wasn't going to happen, he'd pout.

Basically, every sex session had to be a big fucking production that ate up a couple of hours out of my already busy day. I had a full-time job, a demanding young child, housework I felt swamped by and didn't get a lot of help with, and very little time to myself. Yes, I still had a libido... but it was a hell of a lot easier, less work and stress, and frankly more satisfying for me to masturbate daily and maybe have a little time left over to curl up with a good book.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:27 AM on March 20, 2010 [12 favorites]

Even if this is common among couples you know, or if this is common among all couples, that doesn't make it any less likely that it's caused by something you're doing. I'll explain.

In the years when I was younger, I had intercourse with around 25 men, and did "everything but" with around 10 more. Some of these men were one night stands, some casual friendships, some serious relationships. The men were as varied as you can imagine. Out of all of them, I had orgasms at least once with just four. Out of those four, I only consistently enjoyed sex with two. I am not a woman who has a low libido, or has difficulty achieving arousal or orgasm. When I masturbate, I can orgasm in a few minutes. I have no fetishes, I don't require anything out of the ordinary to enjoy sex.

My experience having sex with men in my lifetime has led me to the conclusion that sex with the majority of men would not be good. Possibly I am the only woman for whom this is true, maybe I'm not the norm, but considering everything I've heard from women in my lifetime, I think that I am not alone.

It's not that most men did not care about whether I enjoyed myself in bed. Matter of fact, it seemed important to most of them that I did. But men caring about that usually did not take the form of listening with sincerity to what I enjoyed and doing those things. Or refraining from things I didn't like. Especially when they didn't find what I wanted to be very sexy. They just wanted me to like what they liked doing. Or, they wanted me to like what they thought I ought to like. They might have formulated what I should like from seeing a woman appearing to like it in porno, because previous lovers had liked it, or because they had read an article that it was What Women Liked. They also cared about feeling like they were Good In Bed and wanted me to like the proceedings so they could continue feeling that way. I too experienced what Serene Empress Dork described of men being determined that I have an orgasm, even after I was sore, bored, and had expressed that I didn't need one to enjoy the sex. That they ignored what I said indicated to me that the orgasm was more for their own benefit than mine. For their own sense of self worth. Being happy to do what your partner likes when it comes to sex includes being happy to not have sex right then.

There's more to keep in mind. When men speak of "bad sex," although they're sometimes talking about real horror stories, they're usually talking about sex that was awkward, or not as arousing, or maybe even a session where they couldn't orgasm. The scale is very different for women. For women, "bad sex" usually involves pain, sometimes infection, sometimes blood, sometimes even internal injury. Could you, as a guy, picture agreeing to have sex that would be painful most of the time you were having it? What about just sex that would be very uncomfortable most of the time you had it? You should think about whether that might be happening to your wife in bed, because a lot of women will grin and bear it through painful or uncomfortable sex. Until they don't anymore.

If your wife still masturbates, it's a better bet that the foregoing applies to you than that she has a medical or psychological problem with her libido. If she doesn't still masturbate, then it's more likely to be a libido problem.
posted by galenka at 8:08 AM on March 20, 2010 [10 favorites]

It's bound to make her defensive because it seems like you're accusing her of purposely trapping you.

I think it's making her "defensive" because it's suggesting she's a fridge he can take sex out of (see "I'm not a sexual appliance"). She probably wants to think of sex as a loving communication between two people, not an item the woman gives to the man or the man wins from the woman (the view too many of our sexual metaphors enforce).

I do think it's normal for sex drive to wane after the first year of the relationship. People who are suggesting that you are the common denominator might be taking "bed death" literally, but you said "if I didn't initiate, we'd have sex once a month" - so presumably you are initiating, and you are having sex more often - once a week or so? Which would sound pretty normal to me, for a settled-in relationship (it's even a FOTC song). Since you have a stronger sex drive, it's not acceptable to you, but it's not unusual.

So what are we talking here? How often do you want sex? How long & how intense do you like the sessions to be? And how physically attractive are you - do you work out, look stylish and/or keep yourself well dressed / groomed? You'll probably be more likely to get her excited if you're succeeding in the world, too, not just the guy hanging around who always wants to do it. If it's possible for you to redirect some of that libidinous energy towards projects or work goals, you might find that it ends up coming full circle anyway. A lot depends on what she finds attractive, but pretty much no one finds someone who expects sex as an obligation attractive.
posted by mdn at 8:21 AM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think internet fraud's response is the most well formed thus far. But a couple more thoughts:

1. What would the consensus be if the genders were reversed? There are plenty of woman in relationships with low-libido-men. Would our typical suggestions of "don't initiate, focus on his pleasure, never ask for your own needs" still stand? I suspect some might, some wouldn't.

2. DrGrail: I totally disagree. As Skwirl so eloquently put it, for many people sex is a big part of physical intimacy, and thus a big part of how they communicate and feel love. The "Five Love Languages" gets mentioned quite a bit around mefi. Even for me personally, sexuality is a large portion of how I communicate and listen to the Language of Touch.

3. Ask your gf about her fantasy life. And about her masturbation habits. Both can provide insight into her overall sex drive, which you can then compare to her sex drive *with you*.

4. I think a lot of people artificially inflate their sexual wants in the early stages of a relationship. There's New Relationship Energy, mystery and exploration, and even a sense of "if I don't put out then they won't stay with me". Then as the relationship grows into something more stable and secure, then that person's sex drive returns to "normal". I don't have much to suggest here other than: compromise or end it. We put our best feet forward with new relationships in other areas too: socially, domestically, financially. And when our partner learns of the habit to leave dirty dishes in the sink all week long, or that budgets never get followed, or that we're actually shut-ins... you can either compromise or end it.

Good luck. As someone with a high sex drive currently paired with someone of a low drive... I understand your frustration and pain. It definitely takes work.
posted by whycurious at 9:08 AM on March 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

whycurious:"1. What would the consensus be if the genders were reversed? There are plenty of woman in relationships with low-libido-men. Would our typical suggestions of "don't initiate, focus on his pleasure, never ask for your own needs" still stand? I suspect some might, some wouldn't."

Good question! It certainly wouldn't be my advice. Mostly my advice would be to open the relationship and read Gottman's book. Whereas in this situation it seems a lot more likely that there is a gender-specific issue that can be solved by being conscious about gender differences.

Let me generalize for a moment...! with the caveat that these attitudes and experiences are by no means universal.

From a man's point of view, what makes it sex? The guy gets off, usually through intercourse. Is she enjoying it? Well, the dominant image of intercourse is women loving the hell out of it, right? And he has been taught that it is the main attraction. Or she is making crazy noises like she's orgasming. He doesn't think she's faking it. He asks for what he wants, so he assumes that she is asking for what she wants. Or he makes the (possibly unconscious) assumption that her needs are met when she fulfills his needs. Or he asks her what she wants and she tells him everything is great.

From a woman's point of view, sex is something that guys really like. Their pleasure is the focus. She doesn't ask for what she wants because she doesn't know how, has no script for doing so, doesn't know what she wants, thinks that he really doesn't care what she wants and just wants her to say how much she likes it, or she makes the (possibly unconscious) assumption that she is supposed to feel fulfilled just by meeting his needs. She operates under the assumption that sex is supposed to be a lot more fun for the guy and so she thinks it's normal and natural if he is having a lot more fun than she is.

So at some point, he still wants sex, and under the assumption that it is mutually pleasurable and satisfies her needs, he initiates it frequently. She doesn't like it nearly as much as he does. He is frustrated that she is rejecting this fun, affectionate, bonding couple activity, she feels a huge amount of pressure to do something unpleasant.

Whose fault is that? I think no one's. We didn't make this world, we just live in it. But at the point that a sexual relationship has gotten into a rut where he's having fun and she isn't, the best option is to shut everything down and restart with a different, better, script. Throw out the gendered ideas about sex. Make it all about the woman so that she can relearn sex as something that is pleasurable for her, an activity that she would voluntarily choose and initiate for the fun that it provides. Yes, the man's needs are shoved to the back burner for a while. Then again, if he is constantly frustrated with his sex life, and having sex with someone who isn't even aroused, his needs aren't getting met anyway.

Good luck--
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:07 AM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

From a woman's point of view, sex is something that guys really like....She doesn't like it nearly as much as he does.

From an another woman, generalisations about genders are usually not so helpful when talking about specific people.
posted by saucysault at 10:53 AM on March 20, 2010 [5 favorites]

whycurious: What would the consensus be if the genders were reversed? There are plenty of woman in relationships with low-libido-men. Would our typical suggestions of "don't initiate, focus on his pleasure, never ask for your own needs" still stand? I suspect some might, some wouldn't.

If trying to initiate sex doesn't work, why keep doing it? Seriously? I could never understand why my ex would go from trying to initiate to pouting - if the first didn't work, why the hell would whining make a positive difference? It's a cliche I know, but if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten. Obviously things change but the current method for initiating sex has stopped working. How about trying something else for a change? And like I said, libido changes. It waxes and wanes for men and women.

I don't know that it's so much focusing on her pleasure as focusing on her needs. No amount of good grooming and sexy outfits and housework will put sex on the table if my libido is low, if I'm exhausted and I'm in a bad headspace. Of those, two are things I can overcome with enough encouragement. The headspace? Absolute rock bottom has to be in good shape. If I'm not and I have sex anyway, we've just set ourselves up for a few weeks of angst. Been there, done that, not worth it even if my libido is high and I'm full of energy. Does your partner need to feel sexy? Happy? Well-rested? Valued? The same thing applies to men - my partner absolutely needs to feel loved for sex to happen. Sex is part of making him feel loved but not the whole of it.

The whole needs sex thing irritates me somewhat - I get the whole languages of love thing but I just can't fathom how you think you're telling/showing someone you love them by getting them to do something they're not enjoying. The need for physical affection is not the same as the need for sex although sex is a awesomely fun way to show it.

saucysault: From an another woman, generalisations about genders are usually not so helpful when talking about specific people.

Particularly pretty obnoxious generalisations that aren't really being supported by anyone's experiences on the thread - most women have said they enjoy sex, just not X type of sex. I don't need to relearn that sex is fun - I know it's fun, I enjoy it. I just don't want it all the time and that's okay.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:03 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

saucysault: "From an another woman, generalisations about genders are usually not so helpful when talking about specific people."

Huh, I thought I made it obvious that it was a generalization, guess not.

How about this: this is a pattern I've seen in multiple hetero relationships, including one notable long-term relationship of my own. If it doesn't apply to you, great! I am glad that you/your partner enjoys sex. It is not the case for a lot of women because of the way our society tends to teach people about sex. Unless there are guys out there who never masturbate because they think touching their genitals is "gross" (multiple female friends have told me this) then I am inclined to believe that this kind of disconnect is possible because the woman in the relationship just isn't having fun. If, of course, that's not the case and she just doesn't want sex that much, fine. People have varying sex drives. That is OK, too.

Either way, I see nothing wrong or insulting about making absolutely sure that she is having fun and that her sexual needs are prioritized when the sex does happen...!
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 4:32 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

"But men caring about that usually did not take the form of listening with sincerity to what I enjoyed and doing those things. Or refraining from things I didn't like. Especially when they didn't find what I wanted to be very sexy. They just wanted me to like what they liked doing. "

This really resonates with me--I try hard to be clear about what I like during foreplay, and honestly, it's pretty specific and easy to remember (start at the neck and ears, THEN go down). But some guys have taken that instruction to heart (yay!) and some guys take it as a suggestion. And sex is never as good with the latter group.

So, maybe make sure that you're really doing everything your partner wants you to do.
posted by timoni at 2:38 AM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

This: he's having fun and she isn't a thousand times.

You need to make it fun for her, not pressure oriented. I suspect that when you 'sit' her down for a talk about sex, you are not really listening. You will know that your talk is going somewhere if she is talking and you are not. It shouldnt be about you complaining that she never does it anymore, but about her explaining/sharing her feelings and ideas about what sexy time means to her. You need to listen but good, and then try to change your behavior accordingly.

The great secret about housework libdio killer, is that its really hard to feel romantic about someone who treats you like his maid and is terribly disrespectful in his living practices. If you are not leaving the counters spotless, washing all your pots/dishes after use, then your housekeeping practices are a constant reminder that you are a bratty child, not a partner.
posted by zia at 2:33 AM on March 22, 2010

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